How To stop an Idea from Being Stolen
Intellectual property can provide several ways of protecting your idea during development. The ways to protect an idea include Patents, Trademarks, Copyright, and Non-Disclosure and NNN agreements.
Non Disclosure agreements
Non Disclosure agreements or NDAs are a form of documentation that can help protect your idea/intellectual property they are essentially an agreement between yourself and the other party such as a business that may be interested in investing in your idea or designing your idea manufacturing a prototype etc.
You can get templates for Non-Disclosure agreements from various sources such as local and regional government websites. the UK government has a template that you can download as both a word and a PDF document you can edit the word documents and adjust it as you see fit.
A key thing to know about Non Disclosure Agreements is that they are only an agreement not legally binding contracts so you should be careful who you sign with. Some companies may have their own template they wish you to use and which case you can be discussing with them any changes you may like but the vast majority will just insist that you use their template if they have one. At this early stage of the process where you haven't got a fully developed product, it isn't really worth holding off on key assessments of commercial viability over whose wording you use and less obviously it is something drastic.
It is still good practice to always ask for a Non Disclosure agreement. Some companies may reject them but most will be open to it and it gives you some protection if you don't have a patent or trademarks in place yet. Even if you do have a patent or trademark in place it is still good practice to request a Non Disclosure Agreement.
Most Western countries will have a form of Non Disclosure Agreement, Although in China though they have an NNN agreement Which stands for None use, No Share, and Non-circumvention agreement. Essentially this prevents them from sharing your ideas with a third party or producing a workaround to get around your design or your intellectual property. you can still use a standard template for this to begin with.
What should go in a Non Disclosure or NNN Agreement?
Both agreements should include the names and addresses of both parties including personal and business addresses the date that this document was created, the topics of all subject areas to be discussed within the agreement and penalties for breaching the agreement as well as methods for settling disagreements between the two parties ( such as who would pay legal fees the winner or loser etc). There should be an area at the bottom where both parties can add their signatures, also including any witnesses to the signing as necessary.
There may also be a limit beyond which the agreement does not apply i.e. 2 to 3 years (or similar) beyond the date of the signatures.
Protecting Your Idea
There are other ways to protect an idea or intellectual property the most secure one is trade secrets essentially not disclosing your idea to anyone and keeping it within your organisation or to yourself.
This does not mean that you must not share your idea with other people you must still discuss it but you should only give away key details after first approaching the previously mentioned Non Disclosure or NNN agreement. Instead, you keep the most key or technically important details to yourself or within the company as “trade secrets”.
To be clear you absolutely must share your idea with other people or organisations, whether it is designers or patent lawyers/attorneys, but if you keep your idea to yourself you will never get anywhere with it, you need the assistance of professionals in one way or another and you cannot rely on the opinions of your friends and families as to whether your idea or not have any commercial success they are biased and want you to win.
Another method that may offer you some protection relatively cost-effectively is to trademark your idea with a brand name this doesn't necessarily prevent anyone from sharing your idea but it gives you another pillow to your intellectual property and is much cheaper than a patent.
Patents generally come in the form of either design or utility patents. A design patent registers your ability to profit from the specific shape of your product or design come and examples are the hourglass shape of a Coca-Cola bottle or the iPod designed the Apple.
Design patents are relatively cheap compared to Utility packets this is because they only protect the design of the product and not the features or operations of the product however they are still a cost-effective and useful tool within your intellectual property protection (such a Lego bricks or Coca-Cola bottles).
Utility patents generally cost between 3 to $10,000 or British pounds to secure. They do not protect your idea specifically they protect your ability to profit from your idea. so if you cannot afford to defend your idea against the big company in court then there is not much point in protecting your idea in the first place (as you will have publicly disclosed it). This does not mean that you should not apply for patents it's just something to be considerate of. People who go down the Licencing route rather than the Manufacturing and Distribution route can potentially use the legal teams of their licence partners to defend their product in court. Although licencing is a marathon and not a sprint.
Another key consideration will be that once you have registered your idea of the patent office they will publish it and it will then become common knowledge. Which is known in the trade as being in the "public domain". this means that nobody else can register the idea (as it has already been registered) and neither can you unless you register a full utility patent within 12 months at the cost of 8 to $10,000 or pounds.
A sobering statistic from the IP blog UpCounsel is that only 5% of patents ever go commercial, meaning that 95% of inventors rushed to register their idea before executing it properly and no nobody else can profit from it until the patent expires. Leaving inventors and manufacturers in other countries a 20-year window to build a market lead.
It is one of the great bugbears with individual inventors that they always rush out to register their idea and make it public the one thing they are trying to avoid they actually do. Instead, we suggest that you conduct thorough market research before publicly disclosing your idea.
For example, you should look at existing products on the market and see how much they are selling for and whether or not you could make your product for a 10th of that price, if you can't then you could not make a profit from your idea so you shouldn't for any further time energy or money into it.
Another thing to consider when you are registering your patents is if you have built a successful prototype or not. At least a functional prototype where you can validate that it works the way that it should if it doesn't and then you've already registered the IP you could end up disclosing your idea and then it doesn't work how you intended in the first place and take a double loss because when you did improve the product to make it to work how you needed to you have not disclosed it and it conflicts with your initial idea.
Of course, there are ways around this but they are costly in terms of legal fees and it is much better to get your documentation right the first time around rather than correcting it posthumously. For more on this see the chapter entitled Product Validation.
Another thing to be aware of patents is they generally expire after 20 years. You will see this when you do a patent search on Google patents or on Espacenet. you can find useful tutorials on how to use either of these tools on YouTube and online but I recommend you start with Espacenet due to the fact that Google has a commercial vested interest in certain patents. They are both free to use and doing so will help you develop your product and minimise the time your lawyer or attorney has to spend in this area.
Once a patent has expired then nobody can claim ownership of it in other words everybody is free to profit from the Idea including you or your competitors! legendary product developer Stephen key famously developed his rotating labels using this method.
He had come up with an idea for a new rotation label for products and containers. However, the actual label itself had been patented decades ago and expired, so he patented the manufacturing methods for labels and has had great commercial success since. Even Famously winning a case against LEGO.
One final point to raise for Western inventors is the subject of where you register your presence historically one would register in the country where you wish to make profits as I can only apply to the country they are registered in unless they are part of this Pacific Treaty Pact (PCT) which limits it to very specific countries you can take a look at this online.
Until recently we would have recommended that patents be registered in the United States as they have a very low provisional patent filing fee of around 65 to $70 at the time of writing where as the UK is £200. also, the American consumer market is much bigger in terms of the big box stores such as Target and Walmart.
In the UK the provisional fee is around £200 however this includes a patent search fee that is anything from 1600 to $3,000 in the US and is performed by a professional in intellectual property. Also in recent times, there has been a rather alarming development with the forming of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board Where other companies can argue that they're actually on your intellectual property after it has been approved at a great time and expense.
This famously happened with “Bunch o Balloons” inventor Josh Malone and I recommend you watch his excellent documentary "Invalidated" for further insight before making your own decision. the story ends on a positive note there is now a grass routes movement in the United States to restore the right to profit from one's intellectual property and not have it taken from you.
Patent Lawyers/ Attorneys
You should always hire a patent lawyer or attorney when filing for intellectual property. You can draught your patents yourself but you should also so have them signed off by your attorney to successfully protect an idea from being stolen, probably one who has experience in a courtroom of actually defending a patent as it is a difficult, time-consuming, and extremely costly process.
Personally, I think it's a good idea to draught your patent yourself because it forces you to really think about what is valuable that you can protect and what you cannot in terms of the commercial product also conducting a patent search on Google Patents or Espacenet is a useful activity in terms of learning what already protected and what is not, but as previously mentioned you should not publish this patent yourself you should have it reviewed by a professional safe in the knowledge that you have minimised his or her work and maximised your development budget and you can protect your idea.
You should always remember that patent attorneys and lawyers are experts in intellectual property law and not your product you have to be the expert in your product in understanding how it functions so you can communicate this to your lawyer or attorney as clearly as possible. They know how to protect an idea, but not how to protect your idea!